Powerlifting? Yoga? Calisthenics?
As a beginner in BJJ or any grappling art it becomes apparent very quickly that strength is a big asset. Sure technique development is paramount, but to become the best athlete you can be – strength is essential.
As a beginner it can be almost impossible to cut through the bullshit and actually find some real answers when it comes to how to actually get strong!
You’ll receive a lot of unsolicited advice from friends and teammates about which programs are best and what training methods work and don’t work. To say this is confusing is an understatement – you’ll hear everything from strongman to powerlifting to yoga is the way to really get strong on the mats.
What I really needed was a simple checklist – a guide of things I should be concentrating on to get stronger.
I couldn’t find one, so instead I spent years working through trial and error to find exactly what works for a grappler just beginning their journey in strength training. Then I created my own!
*Now don’t get me wrong, things change – remember this list is aimed at beginners. As you become intermediate and advanced with your lifting, things change and priorities and protocols may change also.
Getting strong as a gym white belt.
So lets take a look at the list, and what actually will set you on the path to improving your strength and becoming a gorilla on the mat.
Focus on the basics
As a beginner its tempting to feel like you need to learn everything at once (Ive even seen coaches program like this). The idea is exposure to a wide range of exercises I guess…
Problem is it would be like a brand new white belt learning something different every class, here’s a knee cut pass, a heel hook, an RNC, a double leg – this leads to information overload and very poor progress.
As a beginner focusing on a handful of core techniques (most likely the main compound movements) will yield the best results. Selecting a few key techniques like a squat, hinge and push, pull will allow you to build skill more quickly and maximise your chance of getting stronger more efficiently.
Technique is key
Just like your grappling, technique is everything. At any stage of you development on the mats or in the gym – technique will under pin everything. Building a solid foundation for your weight training is absolutely essential if your goal is to get stronger.
Too often I see beginners competing with more advanced friends or teammates, ego lifting and often being embarrassed about what they can lift. This leads to bad form (quarter squats, short ROM bench presses, cat back deadlifts, the list goes on) – building on shoddy technique is a sure-fire way to hamper progress and more likely get yourself injured.
So you’re weak right now, you already knew that – that’s why you wanted to get stronger. Focus on technique over what weight is on the bar and you will reap the rewards long term.
Train the whole body
There are so many training splits, set ups and protocols you can choose to follow, but I honestly believe as a beginner the total body training style is the winner. It allows you to easily scale from 2 to 3 to 4 workouts a week to fit comfortably with your BJJ. It allows you to train key lifts (see above) multiple times per week and it allows you to use a decent amount of volume that you can gradually build over time.
Total body sessions fit excellently with your grappling training meaning no one body part is completely hammered (think ‘leg day’) before stepping on the mats. It also ensures that you don’t ‘miss’ body parts after a tough training session, as you will be hitting the full body every session.
Don’t MAX out
A common mistake is the desire to ‘test’ your strength regularly – avoid this. Right now you are training to get stronger, testing just how strong you’ve gotten is not a good way to achieve this, you have to put in the time and work first. Imagine taking a day one white belt and trying to get them to improve by making them compete every weekend! Crazy right? But that’s what testing every week is the equivalent of; said white belt would need to learn technique, drill, situational and full spar – before down the line then competing.
This goes the same for using crazy high RPEs regularly – there is no need to be training at 9/10 RPE as a beginner, you will make plenty of gains and progress at 7/8 RPE as an average session intensity.
Build some Muscle!
A strange ‘worry’ I hear from a lot of grapplers, especially more experienced competitors is the worry of ‘I don’t want to get too big/put on to much weight’. I get that its a concern if an athlete competes regularly at a certain weight class, however overall improvements to body composition, less fat more muscle, will often result in a similar (or in some cases lower) over all bodyweight.
That aside to get stronger as a beginner its a good idea to focus on actually gaining some muscle. If we can increase our muscle size then our potential for strength grows with it. For this reason I often advocate training in the higher side of strength, lower side of hypertrophy for a nice synergy of results. In practise this looks something like 5 to 10 reps for most exercises.
A nice side product of staying away from very low reps (1-3) is that the risk for injury is a lot lower – meaning we have more chance of gaining strength and muscle but also staying on the mats to use it.
So thats my 5 step check list for a beginner wanting to increase strength for grappling performance. It is always tempting to jump on the latest trend, or listen to the advice of a bigger, stronger teammate but as woo woo as it sounds you’re on your own journey. Take the time to build a solid foundation of good technique, with key lifts, train consistently and diligently and you will be surprised at how quick you progress.